Billy and Jackie:  a re-tracer

On April 18, 1950, in the New York Yankees’ season opener at Boston, Billy Martin made his major-league debut. He entered in the sixth inning to play second, replacing pinch-hitter Dick Wakefield, who had struck out to help snuff out a New York rally that still left them trailing the Red Sox, 9-4. Martin did better. He doubled and singled in the eighth, driving home three runs during a nine-run onslaught that put his Yankees ahead to stay, eventually winning 15-10.

That was the beginning of Martin’s career, 63 years ago today. Martin would become well known as one of the most fiery competitors in the history of a game that has had an ample share of such men. (How’s that for understatement?) In a baseball lifetime covered with glories and shames, Martin took some of his greatest pride in how he measured up against another notably fierce, if better controlled, player: Jackie Robinson.

In his biography, Number 1, Martin recalled a lawyer back in his hometown of Berkeley, California, who worked with both his family and Robinson’s. Always eager to find a challenge, Martin took his four World Series appearances against Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers as the opportunity to show this mutual acquaintance who was the better player. “And always I outhit, and always I outplayed [Robinson],” Martin (and Peter Golenbock) wrote. “Every Series we played in.”

Rob Neyer put this story under his magnifying glass for the book Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. Neyer looked over the batting averages and some other components of play, and concluded, “Martin undoubtedly was right: he did outplay Robinson every time they met.”

I’ve been busy of late delving into the career of Robinson and decided a little more research wouldn’t hurt me. Using the comprehensive statistical resources of Baseball-Reference, I compared the performances of Martin and Robinson in the World Series of 1952, ’53, ’55, and ’56.

I used Win Percentage Added as my guide and made sure to count base running, as well as defense, as much as that was possible. (I can’t give out points for great defense, not from standard play-by-plays, but I can debit for errors. Or sometimes not, as you’ll see.)

The bald historical fact is, Robinson didn’t do all that well in the Fall Classic. He posted an uninspiring .234/.335/.343 line in 38 games. Martin, for his part, had a spectacular 1953 Series that would have won him World Series MVP honors if the award had yet existed. Looking pretty good for Martin so far, but let’s look at this the way Martin posed it. Did he outplay Robinson in every World Series they played in?

1952 World Series
Martin: -0.387 WPA Robinson: -0.102 WPA

Ouch. Both men batted poorly (save for a Martin home run), but Robinson drew seven walks to Martin’s two. Jackie had two stolen bases and advanced on a wild pickoff throw against Martin getting caught stealing in Game Three. Martin also had an error in Game Four.

Martin’s most memorable play that year was his last-second dashing catch of a Robinson infield pop-up that, had it dropped, would have tied Game Seven in the seventh. It was an exciting moment but not really spectacular defense. Someone should have caught that high pop. Nobody would remember it if Martin of Joe Collins or Bob Kuzava had settled under it, as all of them could have. I can’t give Martin special credit for what should have been an ordinary play, especially since Robinson already gets the debit for hitting the pop fly.

1953 World Series
Martin: +0.689 WPA Robinson: -0.028 WPA

This one’s almost a walkover. Martin went .500/.520/.958, including two homers, two triples, and the Series-winning RBI. Going one-for-three in steal attempts dings the record, but not by much. Robinson batted .320, but with one walk and slight power.

1955 World Series
Martin: +0.056 WPA Robinson: -0.060 WPA

A fact not often remembered about Robinson’s fabled steal of home in Game One is that it came an inning and a half after Martin tried stealing home himself. Martin was out, his second caught-stealing of the day. It’s almost as though Jackie was answering Billy, that he was the one gauging himself against the other. Who knows: if he had heard about Martin’s chosen mission, his own competitive will might have concentrated on the task.

However, it didn’t sustain him. Robinson’s batting lagged behind Martin’s, who also had timeliness on his side in Games Two and Four. Robinson’s fielding also let him down. He made two errors at third base, both times allowing Martin to reach base. I don’t count those errors against Robinson’s total, since they already count for Martin’s. If I did it the other way, their WPA numbers would be different, but the margin would stay the same.

1956 World Series
Martin: -0.062 WPA Robinson: +0.083 WPA

Robinson stole this one on timely hitting. It was his two-out single in the 10th inning of Game Six that drove home the only run of the contest. He racked up 0.39 WPA on that hit alone, more than making up for a -0.15 in the rest of the game. Martin had a better WPA in five of the seven games—and better overall batting and slugging averages—but didn’t exploit a huge opportunity the way Robinson did.

So, in two Series Martin came out ahead, and in two others Robinson did. Is this a disproof of Martin’s claim? Perhaps not entirely. Martin’s definition of “outhitting” may not have included drawing walks, where Robinson had the advantage. One can also argue whether WPA is a fair assessment of an individual’s play, contingent as it often is on whether one gets high-leverage situations to magnify a single success or failure.

But there’s no saying that Martin was “undoubtedly” right. Not now.

P.S. This item marks the end of my latest Jackie Robinson kick, and also the start of a brief absence from THT. I won’t have my regular article next week, but the week after that I should be making up for it, with interest. Hopefully yours.

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